This blog was originally posted on the Feministing Community blog on January 18, 2013.
I’m currently dragging my angry feminist brain through Michael Kimmel’s book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, which may have been more aptly titled “those poor privileged heterosexual white men.” Every page I remind myself that Kimmel’s heart is in the right place – or at least he wants us to believe it is – and that he believes in gender and racial equality. I have to remind myself of this because he makes a point of narrating his book from the perspective of the men he is attempting to portray: white, middle-class, heterosexual males between approximately 16 and 26 years old. This demographic he represents as abandoned, without leadership or role models, left without any real way to understand or express their manliness in a world of upward mobility among women and racial/sexual minorities. Feminism has left them feeling constrained by “political correctness,” and trapped by the women who have infiltrated all parts of their lives.
Pardon me if I say, boo freaking hoo.
Kimmel represents these young men as a group who “hate [their] lives” (p. 164) because they feel constrained by the need to be “politically correct:” a buzz-phrase used over and over throughout the book, which I have best interpreted as “not a terrible human being.” Any time an interviewee expresses a sexist or homophobic opinion, he points out that it is “not PC,” and laments the inability to state his not-PC opinion where it might be heard by the person it’s aimed against. This external morality is pervasive. They crave environments where they can be truly themselves, which seems to entail fantasizing about male hegemony through demeaning everyone else but them. The guys being interviewed apparently feel stifled by the intrusion of women into formerly man-safe spaces, like the workplace, sports, and bars. They can’t be men in the presence of women, because being a man means being sexist, homophobic, and emotionally bereft, so they resent rising gender equality.
The men that Kimmel cites seem to hate the presence of any woman they can’t fuck. One actually said that when he walks down the street, and has to look at attractive women, it makes him angry because they’re not for him. “’Not violently angry, but just pissed off. It pains us every time we see another woman we can’t have sex with’” (p.175). (It’s interesting how he says “us” instead of “me,” to distance himself from his sociopathic opinion.) I promise I didn’t make that up, and I’m pretty sure the author didn’t either. Whether or not this man went on to become a felon is not mentioned, but I get the sneaking suspicion that if he hasn’t ever coerced a woman into sex, he’s apologetic toward men who do.
The author does have the decency to insert his own voice, every now and then, reminding us that “the idea of white male privilege still hasn’t disappeared,” (p. 162). Weak, but I suppose it’s better than nothing. He may water down the fact of white male privilege by referring to it as an “idea,” downplaying its prevalence by saying it “still hasn’t disappeared,” as if it’s oh-so-close, but at least he doesn’t skip it altogether. Though it does pain me a little to accept such minor concessions.
My issues with this presentation of young-masculinity are, well, myriad. The biggest one is that by focusing on the most privileged and dominant group in his age-demographic (white, middle-to-upper-middle-class, mostly educated or in the process of becoming educated), he’s also presenting an overwhelmingly negative view of an age group that really isn’t completely full of worthless human beings. A man who’s never experienced real disadvantages may turn the rights of his equals into slights against him so that he isn’t forced to confront his own privilege. By refusing to include in his focus the men who actually suffer legitimate disadvantages (racial minorities, the poor, etc), and thereby see the world through a somewhat more realistic lens, Kimmel makes “guys” look like monsters. In fact, he’s simply creating an insanely restrictive definition of the word “guy” – and, by his definition, they are.
The other big problem largely only occurs when he’s dealing with issues between men and women, as opposed to the chapters on things like hazing, which are about male competition among peers outside the realm of female interaction. When Kimmel deals with questions of female equality, or a “guy’s” sexual interactions with women, he consistently speaks in the voice of these guys, and inconsistently reminds us that he knows better; this makes him look like an apologist, condoning disturbing behaviors by explaining them from the actors’ perspectives. When quoting stories about hazing, he will frequently follow up the story with a comment about how tragic, misguided and wrong these guys are. When he tells us a story about misogyny, not a peep in defense of women. He relates this story from a guy, regarding porn:
I love where these stuck-up college bitches are like drunk and finally just give head to like 20 guys and get fucked by the whole football team and all. It’s like they’re always walking around campus in their little shorts and you can see their shaved pussies sometimes, but they they are like, way too hot for me. But then these films, man , they’re like these same bitches, and they finally get what’s coming to them. (p. 183)
If we were playing rape-culture bingo, this quote would win the blackout round. But about this young man, who basically just said his favorite porn to watch is the kind where all the men involved need to go to jail, Kimmel has no negative comments. What he says instead is that this degrading form of pornography (which by the way is NOT always staged, and often is depicting real live instances of coercion and rape), is “a way to level the playing field just a little bit.” Because obviously in this world where we women hold all the power, men need to raise their own position to level the playing field against us. Oh, wait, no. That’s the complete opposite of true.
I picked up this book because it was favorably quoted in Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth (which of course everyone on this site can agree with me was a phenomenal volume), and so I hoped for some sort of helpful discourse regarding the male perspective on an increasingly feminist world. I will confess, I still have about 100 pages left to read, but my hope is rapidly dimming.